In business, he eschewed controversy, and was always looking for new avenues to open unconquered frontiers, never slowing down; never losing hope.
Unlike the johnny-come-lately billionaires of Kenya, CK — who died yesterday aged 80 — had built reputation in the manufacturing, media and agribusiness, a reputation he protected with zeal. Sometimes, he found himself on the receiving end, as he did after the collapse of Uchumi Supermarkets, but he always romped back.
Regarded as one of Africa’s richest men, Kirubi was in 2011 ranked by Forbes magazine as the second richest person in Kenya, behind the Kenyatta family. Though he never featured in the list again, Kirubi’s fortunes have remained steady.
Among his well-known ventures were Haco Industries in Nairobi’s Ruaraka, DHL Express Kenya Limited, Capital FM, Nairobi Bottlers Limited, and Sandvik East Africa Limited.
Despite his failing health in recent years, after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, Kirubi had not slowed down on his ventures. The business tycoon was in the first generation of Kenyan general managers in State parastatals, and was the pioneer administrator of Kenya National Transport Company (Kenatco), where — as he always told those who would believe him — he built a formidable empire that commanded respect in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.
Kenatco, under Kirubi, was arguably the biggest transport company in the region, and had Kenya Bus Service not invoked its monopolistic contract with the City of Nairobi, CK wanted to start a Kenatco bus company for the city.
But that success would also be attributed to the premier Kenatco Chairman Kenneth Matiba and his successor Joe G. Kibe, the men who, as permanent secretaries in the ministry of Commerce, had laid the Kenatco foundation. So successful was Kenatco that its fleet of Mercedes Benz vehicles was often used to ferry foreign dignitaries. It also pioneered the self-drive, car hire business for the middle class.
Brought down Kenatco
The entry of CK into Kenatco followed the ouster of British administrator Peter Arthur Spencer — a former government bureaucrat, who had been hired to Kenatco after his position at the Ministry of Home Affairs was Africanised.
Spencer almost brought down Kenatco, and he had started by selling some of its assets.
When Kirubi was hired, he opened some regional business for Kenatco, which was doing rolling business in Zambia, thanks to the flourishing copper industry. He pioneered Kenatco’s transportation of pork, beef and butter to Zambia before the company was caught up in the East African Community (EAC) crisis that saw the closure of the Kenyan-Tanzania border. The opening of the Chinese built Tazara railway also complicated matters for Kenatco.
Kenatco was, however, still the main transporter of Uganda coffee — and that is where billionaires of the 70s were made. How much CK knew of the cartels involved in the Uganda coffee theft racket is not known, but he always denied playing any part.
Five years ago, we sat by the fireside at Enashipai in Naivasha and I asked him about the coffee cartels: “I’m the one who asked police to protect Kenatco lorries from these thieves. It was during my tenure that we had two MPs jailed for coffee,” he said.
CK was referring to the 1978 case of Embakasi MP Godfrey Muhuri Muchiri and Makuyu’s Jesse Gachago, who were jailed for five years for stealing 485 bags of coffee in transit from Malaba to Mombasa belonging to Kenatco — a case that would later feature in the Charles Njonjo Commission of Inquiry since he later ordered their release after they apologised to him.
By the time Jomo Kenyatta died in 1978, some wealthy coffee traders had emerged in Kenya having taken advantage of the economic chaos in Uganda, the Brazilian frost and the unfettered smuggling at the border. A contraband coffee economy had emerged in east Africa with producers, buyers, middle men, transport operators, and exporters joining hands in an unholy alliance of sleaze.
How much Kenatco was involved in this black market will never be known, but shortly after President Daniel arap Moi came to power and vowed to end magendo, as the smuggling was called, Kirubi was removed from Kenatco and replaced with Yuda Komora, a man who had little understanding of transport business.
“It was Komora who destroyed Kenatco,” Kirubi told me by the fire place.
Kirubi would then emerge as a serial entrepreneur, coffee being one of his main businesses — until recently, when he uprooted most of the trees and replaced them with avocados.
It was through his Kiruma International, his investment vehicle, that Kirubi would leave a mark. While Kiruma International Ltd has been eclipsed by its owner, its shareholding in various companies is well known.
The real estate sector returned good fortunes for CK and, by the time of his death, his International Life House in Nairobi, opposite Hilton Hotel, had, for many years been regarded as one of the best addresses in the CBD hosting embassies and high commissions.
The billionaire also acquired the DHL franchise in Kenya and was the chairman of DHL Express Kenya Limited.
The business mogul founded Haco Industries in 1974 and built it into a multinational that manufactured and distributed personal care and stationary goods across East Africa.
In the media industry, Kirubi launched Capital FM radio — a leader in its segment. It was here the flamboyant businessman had the tag DJ CK as he tried his hand as a presenter — mostly as a hobby. But Kirubi also wrote regular, informed opinion columns on business on the platform.
The industrialist was also director at Centum Investment Company, a company that had taken advantage of President Mwai Kibaki’s years of economic boom to make good returns from the capital markets. At one point, he owned 18 per cent of Centum.
Last year, Kirubi announced that he had bought an additional 5.75 million shares of the company as he embarked on his goal of acquiring an extra 20 per cent stake in the Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed firm.
Ever since he was charged in 2009 with conspiracy to defraud Uchumi by irregularly selling a prime property in Nairobi to some investors for Sh147 million, Mr Kirubi has been careful with public companies. For three years, he had fought claims that he had sold the retail store’s Aga Khan Walk branch to Allgate Ltd and leased back the landmark building to Uchumi for Sh1.7 million per month in 2004.
Kirubi also faced a separate charge of breaching public trust as the former Uchumi board chairman by allegedly approving the sale without an independent valuation of the property.
Although he won the case, Kirubi and his co-accused, had learnt a lesson.